Sunday, March 06, 2005

Convention; Light and Darkness

Last Friday and Saturday was our diocesan convention. This is a big diocese (over 100 congregations) so it's not unusual to have over 500 people in attendance. This was my second year. I don't have voice or vote (I'm not canonically resident), but I go to represent the congregation in which I serve. The advantage is that whenever they start the voting process, I can slip out and browse the exhibits. The disadvantage is I can't voice an opinion; quite frustrating for someone who is opinionated on most everything.

The Episcopal Church is small enough that at any gathering you'll always encounter a few people you already know beyond the delegation from your parish. Such was the case this year. I met a few new folks as well. As conventions go, this one went quite smoothly, including passing a 2 million budget with minimal discussion. Much credit must be given to our bishop, who is the best I have ever encountered, and diocesan staff, who obviously poured a lot of energy into this event.

Since it was overall quite upbeat, I was rather taken back by two incidents that reminded me that any time we stand in the light, the darkness is always near, sometimes pressing in hard enough to become visible. The first moment was during a hearing on the Windsor Report and the Primates' Meeting. One representative of the Network launched into his speech with the announcement that the Episcopal Church may soon no longer exist. He went on to suggest we should apologize to the gays and lesbians for not offering them the healing opportunities they need. That's when I felt the chill, and sensed the darkness surrounding us and closing in. It wasn't just his comments; it was the response to them. The majority of the people packed in that small hearing room (about 300, I would estimate) were deeply offended by his comments. The animosity finally broke loose just a bit near the end, with responses being shouted from the audience. Things never got out of hand, but you could have cut the tension with a knife. Two enemies were squaring off. It suddenly felt like a very dangerous place to be.

The other moment was when a resolution was presented condemning torture by the US military. Since I don't vote, I must admit to not reading it carefully before the convention. The intent was admirable; for our diocese to go on record as defending the dignity of every human being. The problem was the wording. Death squads were mentioned, for instance. I have no doubt such squads exist. The problem is that these reports are discounted by much of the public, unless the military themselves admit to the accusations. And even then, such as in the case in Abu Ghraib, if the military say that it is an isolated incident, the majority of the public accept it. People are scared since 9/11. They want a strong military.

Mentioning "death squads" almost assured that this resolution would fail. Heck, we still won't admit that Negroponte was involved in the death squads of Honduras, or I must assume that we won't admit it, since he is the new chief of our secret police. We wouldn't appoint a butcher as the head of the American Gestapo, would we? Actually, who better, I suppose. But I digress.

The other problem was the strident wording of the resolution, and the fact that copies of an article by Seymour Hersch were distributed as a support document. I respect his work, but his name has become connected with the anti-Bush crowd, and for some, is considered anti-American. Just hearing his name triggers a knee-jerk reaction with some folks.

As one might expect, a few veterans spoke against the amendment. Two clergy spoke for it. One amendment died for lack of a second because the wording was too convoluted for most folks to understand. The resolution failed. It shouldn't have. All it needed was to have the wording cleaned up. The majority of the crowd were progressive and moderate Christians. A resolution against torture should have been a slam dunk.

As I silently watched from the back of the room, the same cold chill and deep dismay swept over me. We were suddenly broken into two camps; "us" versus "them," and the darkness began to envelop us all once again.

Even though all and all it was a wonderful convention, I've found myself quite troubled since I returned home. I glimpsed our brokenness, and our inability to fix it. I was reminded that we are not yet redeemed, and how easily we can be swallowed up by the darkness. I've been reflecting on my own brokenness as well, and questioning the times I thought I was bringing light into a situation, but instead created adversaries, and possibly victims, by my own anger and self righteousness.

It's so easy to fall into the secular fundamentalist's mindset; that we humans can fix everything if we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get on with it. There's no question that we have to do what we can do. But in the end, my faith is not in human progress. No matter the great strides we make towards justice and equality, in the end we will still be broken, and won't be able to fix it. We will still have no defense against the darkness.

Today I find myself questioning the faith I have placed in the Church as well. As is becoming more and more evident to many of us, she is also broken, and no human process, document, or edict from on high seems to be able to fix her.

Witnessing the darkness so easily invade the space occupied by good, dedicated Christians, who were sincerely attempting to do God's work, has been a wake up call for me. My faith needs to be focused on the healing power of God's love, and that alone.

Does this get me off the hook from having to do anything? No. In the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, when the disciples came to tell him that the people were hungry, his response was, "You feed them." So they did what they could do, and came up with one boy's lunch. This they presented to Jesus, and trusted him to do the rest. We first do what we can do, and then we trust God for the rest.

I chaired a peace and justice commission for a few years in another diocese. We managed to get a few resolutions through. This is a bigger diocese, and so may be tougher to work, but, if I'm ever granted voice and vote, I might give it a shot. Today, I'm not so sure, though. The people have become too polarized. My perspective has become too biased. Out of the chasm caused by such divisions swirls a darkness that fills me with a sense of futility that is not easily dispelled. It's not healthy. We must consider the cost, both personally and corporately, before engaging in such struggles. Today, the cost feels too high. But that might be the result of my own spiritual weakness right now. This time next year, who knows?


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